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A Brief Literary History of Robots

6 April 2017

From Literary Hub:

Isaac Asimov, one of the world’s greatest science fiction writers, died 25 years ago today. I likely don’t have to tell you this, but one of Asimov’s most enduring legacies is his creation of the Three Laws of Robotics—not to mention his host of attendant robot-related literature. So, to honor the anniversary of his death, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of the greatest robots in literature.

You may or may not know that robots actually originated in literature—the word was first popularized in a 1920 play by Czech playwright Karel Čapek (who was, incidentally, on Hitler’s most-wanted list). There were examples of mechanized humanoids and magically autonomous figures in literature before this play, of course, and much depends on how loose you are with your definition of “robot,” but this was the first time the word was used to describe an artificially constructed human-like tool. Happily, robots have rather caught on. In fact, some day soon they may replace their creators—writers, I mean—entirely. Below, find a few of my favorite examples of robot-related literature through the years—and since this is by necessity an incomplete list, feel free to add your own favorite robo-books in the comments.

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The word “robot” was first used by Czech playwright Karel Čapek in his famous 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti). In 1923, it was adapted for the English stage as Rossum’s Universal Robots. In Czech, robotnik means “forced worker” and robota refers to “forced labor, compulsory service, drudgery”—the Online Etymology Dictionary traces it back to the Old Slavic rabu, “slave.” Of course, as science historian Howard Markel put it, “it’s really a product of Central European system of serfdom, where a tenants’ rent was paid for in forced labor or service.”

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I assume I’m not the only one whose childhood was haunted by the Mechanical Hound of Bradbury’s 1953 classic:

The Mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse. The dim light of one in the morning, the moonlight from the open sky framed through the great window, touched here and there on the brass and the copper and the steel of the faintly trembling beast. Light flickered on bits of ruby glass and on sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils of the creature that quivered gently, gently, gently, its eight legs spidered under it on rubberpadded paws.

And don’t forget the “four-inch hollow steel needle” that “plunged down from the proboscis of the Hound to inject massive jolts of morphine or procaine” into its prey. Robo-dogs are dangerous, man.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub